The greatest generation faded away to 1,200-square-foot retirement condos in Florida or the Arizona desert, but the housing industry envisions something markedly different for the next wave of retirees. Instead, builders are serving up 2,000-plus-square-foot houses -- complete with fancy fixtures such as granite countertops and home offices with high-speed Internet access -- to a more affluent, more active, more demanding bunch. Developments are often within commuting range of a major city, providing work opportunities for the late-middle-age residents such communities attract, as well as access to cultural activities and the kids and grandkids. They have hundreds of units rather than the thousands of earlier communities -- the better to lure boomers who have always disdained being part of the herd.
Call this "next-stage housing" -- retirement developments for people who aren't necessarily retired, though they may be ready to downsize from their 4,000-square-foot, four-bedroom empty nests. Such communities are sprouting outside metropolitan areas such as Boston, Chicago, New York, Sacramento, and Washington. Some, such as Leyland Alliance's planned community in Warwick, N.Y., feature a "new urbanism" design, where homes are built around a town square or Main Street, providing walking access to restaurants and shops.
Baby boomers, with their $17 trillion in net worth, are the catalyst for this change. Boomers hope to retire earlier than their parents, says John Migliaccio, president of the American Institute of Financial Gerontology, a Deerfield Beach, (Fla.) company that trains financial professionals to work with older clients. But that doesn't mean they want to leave the labor force completely, so they need to be near jobs, according to a 2003 survey by Del Webb (PHM ), the Phoenix company that developed what many consider the first planned community for seniors -- Sun City, Ariz., in 1960 (Del Webb has since been acquired by homebuilder Pulte Homes (PHM )). The study found that 24% of those polled want to move into their retirement home before they turn in the washroom key. A more recently released study shows that 36% of boomers either have moved or plan to move after the kids take flight, and that being close to an urban center is especially important to the youngest boomers.
Helene Gargan, 52, is an example of the younger, not-quite-retired residents who are buying into these new developments. Gargan traded a 1.5-mile drive to her software-testing job in Quincy, Mass., near Boston, for an hour-long commute when she moved to the Great Island community in Plymouth, Mass. Sure, she spends more time commuting, but she more than makes up for it with the hours she saves in maintenance chores. That's a major draw of the new communities, which often have staff to take care of such things.
At the six-bedroom Boston duplex that had been in Gargan's family since 1921, "there was always the grass to cut, the hedges to trim," she says. "There was always the snow to shovel in winter. I could spend five hours shoveling out." Now she pays a monthly maintenance fee for others to do the work while she enjoys the lake view from her 2,400-square-foot house, with walking trails, canoeing, and kayaking nearby.
Another attraction: Fellow residents at Great Island aren't the stereotypical retirement community of shuffleboard players. Instead, Gargan sees her neighbors biking and hiking. "I don't consider myself old, and everyone I've met is quite vibrant," she says.
Golf, the mainstay feature of yesteryear, is often no longer the major draw at many of these newer communities. Instead, there are high-tech fitness centers, extensive walking trails, and college courses that are taught on-site. "Our clubhouse amenities are being designed for a more active resident," says David Smith, a vice-president at D.R. Horton Inc., whose Cambridge Homes unit developed Carillon Lakes in Crest Hill, Ill.
Even many of the older residents are more active. Iris Kislin, 69, is vice-president at an agency that books authors and celebrities for speaking engagements. She works out of her new two-bedroom home at the two-year-old Somerset Run (N.J.) development, about 37 miles southwest of Manhattan. For her, too, the ability to hand off maintenance chores was a major reason to trade in her four-bedroom home in nearby North Brunswick, N.J. She's still close to her two daughters and three grandchildren and remains within commuting distance of Manhattan, where her company's office is located. Three couples who are friends have also bought homes in the same community.
Some of these developments have age restrictions, requiring most residents to be either 55 or older or 62 or older, depending on the community. But a growing number are "age targeted." That means they're designed to attract older adults simply by not being convenient to schools and playgrounds and by offering homes that have two bedrooms rather than the family-friendly three or four. Some developments are designed as blended communities with a wider range of ages, but are still not appropriate for families with very young children, says Migliaccio.
THE NICHE GOES MAINSTREAM
Some of the preferences developers are catering to -- such as the urge to retire within range of a major city or to remain close to the old home, with its connection to family and friends -- aren't necessarily new, says Dave Schreiner, a Pulte Homes vice-president. It's just that when the retiring generation was smaller, builders focused on the moving-to-Florida mainstream rather than the niches. But boomers are 76 million strong -- and they do differ from generations that preceded them.
People are living and remaining healthy longer. So it was perhaps inevitable that builders would design communities to bridge the gap between family living and the old-age developments of yore. As they have done before in other areas, boomers now are busily redefining retirement living.
By Carol Marie Cropper